Christopher Evans in Defence of the Archeological Planning Condition

17:17 Tuesday 28th June 2011
Drive BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PETER SWAN: On Friday’s show we heard from a chap called Alan Melton. He’s the Leader of Fenland District Council. And he was unhappy because he believes archeologists are delaying building projects in the Fenland area. This is what he had to say. (TAPE)
ALAN MELTON: It seems to me that a whole industry has grown up where wherever anybody wants to develop or build, irrespective of where it is, even if it’s in sub-soil such as clays, there has to be some form of archeological dig. And I actually believe that in many instances it’s not necessary, and it’s a very very costly process.(LIVE)
PETER SWAN: Now Mr Melton is keen to ease planning restrictions in Fenland, but as you might imagine. he hasn’t exactly endeared himself to archeologists, both locally and nationally. Now Chris Evans is Executive Director of the Archeological Unit at Cambridge University, and I’m pleased to say he joins us now. Evening to you Chris.
CHRIS EVANS: Good evening to you Peter.
PETER SWAN: Now I guess we ought to start, what is this issue all about? What is Archeological Planning Condition?
CHRIS EVANS: For 20 years now in England you’ve had the sort of situation of essentially it’s a case of polluter pays, and that if you do development over a certain size, first you need to demonstrate what is the archeological resource. And if sites are found, then either the building or the construction has to be redesigned to preserve them in situ, or they have to be excavated, essentially. And essentially it’s that the developer pays for that. Nine times of of ten, or if not 95%, it’s now a highly professional field, and it’s been running for 20 years. Of course occasionally there are mis-timings, but generally what ends up happening, it’s part of the planning process, it falls into a schedule, it doesn’t cause major delays, and it’s a very very professional process. And it’s resulted in absolutely revolutionising the understanding of basically the narrative of the English past, over the last 20 years. It’s just staggering discoveries that have come out of it.
PETER SWAN: Yes, because of course you need time, don’t you, if you’re going to look at these areas properly. And when building work’s going on, it’s a great chance to get in there. Mr Melton’s concerns, you’ve heard what he had to say, he seems to be worried about cost and delay. What do you make of that?
CHRIS EVANS: Well what was talked about last night on the PM programme, for example, is that it goes through the planning process, and it gets timed and scheduled. It’s basically a two-stage process. And so when the dialogue happens at an early stage, it’s not a matter of delays, it’s simply a part of the process and you time it. You time for .. you have a major site, it’s part of both the national, the regional and the local heritage. It’s not unjustified to say, if you’re going to destroy it, you need to excavate it. And unfortunately what the councillor is saying is this idea that when you’re digging the buildings’ footings, that’s when you can excavate. That isn’t the case at all. That’s an emergency situation. That’s only when the stakes are done. I think the public is now well-enough versed. They see archeology on Time Team, on Digging for Britain. They know what is involved in an excavation. And it’s not something you do at the back end of a JCB. It takes time, and you get the results.
PETER SWAN: And it seems almost here as well, from what you’ve been saying, that Mr Melton’s picked a fight that’s quite a big one. Because legally it’s debatable really whether a District Council could actually change the situation anyway.
CHRIS EVANS: Well they can’t. It’s in their own Core Strategy which they passed in March. We don’t need to go into what is in the planning document. But basically it recognises archeology in the planning process. So if they were to adopt this, they would be going against all national planning guidelines, and also a lot of European. But I would stress that it’s national. They simply, at the moment, can’t do this. So It’s not saying this is a storm in a teacup. But really before this announcement was made, they should have gone and taken some proper planning advice.
PETER SWAN: And just quickly, while we’ve got you on the show Chris, are there any good examples of great digs within Fenland, items that have been discovered?
CHRIS EVANS: Well there’s been fantastic sites in recent years. Most years, within the Fenland district, there’d be about three to five excavations. There’s been some very important sites dug at March in recent years, Bronze Age landscapes where wood has been preserved. Because of course being Fenland, it’s so deep. the land is low, it’s waterlogged, it’s wet. You get staggering archeology. Now of course this very important site, the one at Must Farm that was found about five years ago near Whittlesea, which is this magnificently preserved Bronze Age platform settlement. It is an incredibly important site. And it doesn’t just exist in a local context. It exists in a national and an international context. And to be frank, it’s just not the right of the local councils to say that just because they may not be interested particularly, that site can be destroyed. It’s not ownership they have of the past, they have a curatorship of the past. But they must respect these other interests. And if we talk together and work together, there is no reason this need result in building delays. And as I was saying, nine times out of ten, it runs as a smooth process.
PETER SWAN: Chris, thanks for joining us on the show. Really appreciate it.
CHRIS EVANS: Thank you very much. Bye.
PETER SWAN: That’s Chris Evans Executive Director of the Archeological Unit at Cambridge University.